“I was pulled this way and that for longer than I can remember.
And the problem was that I always tried to go in everyone’s way
but my own…So after years of trying to adopt the opinions of others
I rebelled. I am an ‘invisible’ man.” –
Ralph Ellison, Invisible
The American labor movement is trying to reinvent itself – again.
But the process and the outcome could resurrect skeletons supposedly
banished from the House of Labor by “progressive” leadership in
the past decade. These bad skeletons – exclusion, privilege and
inequality – if unchecked, will impede organized labor’s efforts
to become more relevant to a workforce that looks less and less
like the labor movement of the past fifty years. In fact, nearly
30 percent of the workers in unions today are people of color
– African Americans (14%); Latinos (11%); and Asian Pacific Americans
(3%). Women now make up 42 percent of union membership.
That is what makes the AFL-CIO’s executive council meeting
next week in Las Vegas so critical to women and workers of color,
especially black workers. A report released last month by the
U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, reveals
a deepening crisis for the 2.1 million black workers holding union
jobs in America.
In 2004 total union membership continued its long-term decline,
dropping by about 300,000, to 12.5 percent of the American workforce.
But black union workers took a walloping hit last year:
55 percent (or 168,000) of the union jobs lost in 2004 were held
by black workers, even though they represented only 13 percent
of total union membership.
More stunningly, African American women accounted for 70 percent
of the union jobs lost by women in 2004. Yes, 100,000 black union
women – many the sole or primary breadwinner in their households
– lost their paychecks, their job security, medical insurance
for their families and their retirement nest eggs in just one
Compounding the disproportionate loss of union jobs in black
households – especially those headed by women – are the shrinking
paychecks of black union members. In 2004, federal income data
ranked African American union workers last among all the major
worker groups in median weekly earnings:
|White union weekly earnings
|Asian union weekly earnings
|Latino union weekly earnings
|Black union weekly earnings
More ominously, black union wages declined from 2003 to 2004, while
the union wages of all other worker groups – whites, Asians, and
Latinos – increased during the same period. Consequently, the racial
wage gap between black and white union members not only persists
but also is getting wider. In 2003, black union workers earned 15
percent less than their white counterparts ($665 vs. $779). By the
end of 2004, the gap had grown to 20 percent ($656 vs $808).
The core labor reform agenda posed by these organizations, who
are the legitimate voice of workers of color and women, (1) maintaining
and increasing diversity in leadership and staff positions, (2)
strengthening local labor bodies, (3) and building stronger, formal
ties with labor’s community allies, is the most ironic intervention
in a very pale debate.
Ten years ago, CBTU and its allies pressured the contenders for
the AFL-CIO presidency – John Sweeney, then the president of SEIU,
and Tom Donahue, the AFL-CIO secretary-treasurer – to commit to
increasing the representation of women and people of color in
leadership and staff positions at the federation. With Sweeney’s
October 1995 election as the federation’s new president, he did
push to expand the executive council. As the result of a constitutional
change, the number of minorities on the federation’s executive
council has tripled, from four to 13 members. The House of Labor
became more hospitable to women and people of color.
Or so it seemed…
The AFL-CIO’s cosmetic embrace of diversity may have sensitized
to some extent, but it hardly uprooted, the white male power structure
that has shaped the federation’s internal culture and dictated
its policies since the merger of the AF of L and the CIO 50 years
ago. In fact, many black labor leaders and union staff workers
quietly chafe in the yoke of “official” diversity, which merely
colorizes labor solidarity within a non-inclusive framework of
power relations. Or to give it a brand name, call it “Diversity
Lite: more color, less flava.”
Here’s an example of how Diversity Lite works:
In the 2004 election cycle, the AFL-CIO constituency groups –
which have forged strong alliances and empowered many urban communities
in campaigns for jobs, better schools and voter education and
mobilization – requested funding to run non-partisan election
programs in pro-labor urban areas (particularly in the South)
that were off the political radar screen of “battleground state”
commandos. Collectively, these groups have a network of chapters
nationwide that could reach millions of black, Latino, Asian and
Throughout 2003-04, they re-submitted budgets and plans, each
time providing more detail for less and less funding. After more
than a year of “playing the game,” the constituency groups realized
that they had gotten played.
They got nothing, not even chump change – in spite
of the presence of prominent people of color on the AFL-CIO’s
executive council, in spite of the federation’s past funding
of the constituency groups to do similar get-out-the-vote operations,
in spite of the federation’s declared intention to mobilize
voters most likely to support its “Take Back America” agenda,
i.e. women and people of color.
Was labor’s funding spigot dry? Only if Donald Trump is a broke-ass
billionaire, and he’s far from that.
According to federal election reports, the AFL-CIO’s political
action committee (COPE), collected $1.3 million in the 2004 cycle.
In fact, the political dollars controlled by the AFL-CIO was pocket
change compared to the huge stash of money raised by individual
unions. According to federal election reports, the top ten labor
PAC’s in the 2004 cycle controlled nearly $75 million, many with
substantial minority membership: (SEIU - $14.7 million; AFSCME
- $13.9 million; UAW - $10.8 million; Teamsters - $10.7 million;
District 1199 - $6.8 million).
In addition to these “hard money” war chests, several unions
poured money into so-called “527” organizations. In fact, 16 unions
choose to contribute $7.5 million to one such 527, America Coming
Together, instead of funding the AFL-CIO constituency groups,
which are headed by women and people of color. Former AFL-CIO
political director Steve Rosenthal created ACT to take control
of labor’s voter education and turnout campaigns in urban communities.
Labor’s massive political war chest is built on the trust and
paychecks of union members, including African Americans, Latinos,
women and Asian Pacific Americans who, collectively, are nearly
60 percent of unionized workers.. Yet, few if any of
the people who control the funding spigot in the AFL-CIO and other
unions are people of color. That’s how Diversity Lite works in
reverse: the more money, the less color.
So it is more than ironic that a decade after black trade unionists
successfully thrust color and gender into labor’s last major leadership
“makeover” they and their allies are now on the defensive,
fighting to protect past diversity gains from the knives of some
new “reformers.” Just as ironic, African American workers are
still more likely to join unions than white, Asian or Latino workers,
in spite of labor’s indifference to the precipitous decline in
black union membership. And black union households are still organized
labor’s most consistent political allies, even when that support
is not reciprocated.
Consequently, any major setback for black trade unionists – either
external (i.e., job loss, income decline or benefit cuts)
or internal (i.e., changes that would stifle their voice,
influence or growth) – will inevitably boomerang on the labor
movement as a whole.
What has become even more apparent ten years later is that “diversity,”
in so far as it ever existed beyond the most superficial and conditional
levels in the labor movement, has reached an impasse.
Black leaders can not simply “show face,” as it’s said, while
being marginalized within labor’s pale power structure. That would
be both wrong and unsustainable. To give life to their alternative
reforms for organized labor, they must go beyond “Diversity Lite,”
they must bust the shackles of exclusion and embrace the liberating
audacity of Ralph Ellison’s nameless protagonist to claim invisibility
as their own power.
Dwight Kirk is a freelance writer living in Washington DC.